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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Cardinal Wolsey

(Thomas Wolsey, c.1475–1530)
The leading political figure in the first half of the reign of *Henry VIII. He was born into a relatively humble family in Ipswich; early rumours made his father a butcher, but he owned houses and land in the town. Wolsey's talents caused him to shine both at Oxford and in the church. Ordained in 1498, he was chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury by 1501 and was soon an adviser in royal circles. When the 18-year-old Henry VIII became king, in 1509, he left the details of administration very largely to Wolsey. Rapid preferment followed. Wolsey became bishop of Lincoln in 1514 and archbishop of York later that same year (it was typical of the age that he did not visit York till 1530); by the end of the following year, 1515, he was a cardinal and lord chancellor of England.

Wolsey's main interest, like the king's, was in foreign affairs – the *Field of Cloth of Gold was an event much to their liking. But it was a domestic issue, admittedly with foreign ramifications, which prompted his downfall – the king's divorce from *Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey suggested in 1527 that the necessary annulment could be procured from the pope, but he failed to deliver it. In 1529 Wolsey was dismissed as lord chancellor. Losing his greater powers, he travelled to York to be enthroned as archbishop, but he was arrested and brought south to face charges of treason. They would certainly have led to his execution but illness saved him this indignity; he died on the journey, at Leicester.

A reputation for tyranny, sometimes imputed to him, is not justified. Wolsey made great use of the *Star Chamber, but under his control it was subject to fewer delays and probably less injustice than other courts (its evil reputation was earned in the next century). He was nevertheless an extreme example of the greedy and worldly pre-Reformation prelate. His opulence can be seen still in his own house (*Hampton Court) and in his most munificent foundation (Christ Church at *Oxford).

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